Peter and the Farm

We haven’t seen this very “red in tooth and claw” documentary yet but, ladies and gentleman, this is how you do a trailer! From the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s synopsis of Peter and the Farm,

Peter Dunning is a rugged individualist in the extreme, a hard-drinking loner and former artist who has burned bridges with his wives and children and whose only company, even on harsh winter nights, are the sheep, cows, and pigs he tends on his Vermont farm. Peter is also one of the most complicated, sympathetic documentary subjects to come along in some time, a product of the 1960s counterculture whose poetic idealism has since soured. For all his candor, he slips into drunken self-destructive habits, cursing the splendors of a pastoral landscape that he has spent decades nurturing. Imbued with an aching tenderness, Tony Stone’s documentary is both haunting and heartbreaking, a mosaic of its singular subject’s transitory memories and reflections—however funny, tragic, or angry they may be.

Peter and the Farm will be in theaters and available on demand through Amazon Video and iTunes starting November 4th. More info here.

Pet Peeve: Martini Glass Size Inflation

cocktailbigIn my perfect world Root Simple has a downtown office in one of LA’s iconic 1920’s era office buildings. Every day at noon we’d break for a three martini lunch. But how are we going to bring back this boozy tradition without losing afternoon productivity? The answer is simple: we’re going to reduce the size of the glass.

In yet another example of the supersizing of America, the average martini glass size has gone from 3 ounces, back in the early 20th century, to a stupendous 12 ounces or more. In other words, the three martini lunch of yesterday has less alcohol than you would consume with just one martini today.

I thought I might be the lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, thinking that the masses have flocked to martinis the size of hot tubs. But the kids at the Kitchn beat me to it, noting that small 3 to 4 ounce martini glasses have the added advantage of being less top heavy and keeping drinks cooler. They also provide some specific recommendations. I especially like this classic 4.6 ounce glass. For a more thrifty option you can do as I did and scour thrift stores.

So my brothers and sisters, let’s unite and un-supersize our martinis! The fate of civilization is in our hands.


Are Miniature Books the New Smartphone?

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

I tend to be slow to adopt new technology. I was probably the last person on the block to have dial-up internet service. I still have a landline. And I held out on getting a smartphone until just last year. But once I adopt a new technology I turn into an addict.

Computer scientist and work habit guru Cal Newport warns about smartphone addiction. He has a suggestion for breaking habitual phone checking. When you’re out and about simply don’t check your phone, even when you’re in a long line at the post office. Newport’s reasoning is that by constantly checking your phone you’re training yourself to be a shallow thinker.

But there’s still all those long, boring lines to deal with. What about reading a book instead? Newport might not agree, but at least it’s better than checking a phone. I’m hoping that a little more book reading might help counteract my shortened attention span (which I blame on the internet).

A short history of tiny books
One of the convenient things about a smart phone is that it puts the whole internet in your pocket. But long before Snapchat people carried miniature books. Prayer books and the bible were popular in miniature form. In the 19th century, improved printing technology brought a wider variety of tiny books aimed at travelers.

In the 20th century the miniature book became an end in itself. Rather than utility, miniature books are now objects to collect. This is not what I’m interested in. Rather, I’m looking for books that are small (non necessarily miniature) and convenient to carry while on the train or running errands.

81keznrblllPractical small books
Penguin has a long history of publishing books in smallish (not miniature) form. Since the 90s I’ve occasionally picked up their inexpensive and short classics series such as Thoreau’s essay Walking and Michel De Montaigne’s Four Essays. Kelly just got me their Little Black Classics Boxed Set which includes 80 works of short fiction and non-fiction by authors as varied as Samuel Pepys, Edith Wharton and Dante.

But the first book I started my cellphone alternative experiment with is Ammianus Marcellinus’ History Books 14-19 in an edition that’s part of the Loeb Classical Library. Loeb books are handsome, small and sturdy hardbacks with English on one page and Latin or Greek on the opposite page. Marcellinus is an entertaining Roman historian whose extant books chronicle the tumultuous years around the time of Constantine. So far it’s even more lurid than the updates on our current presidential election I get when I glace at the iPhone.

Yes, you can read books on a smartphone, but I still think that the medium of a paper book lends itself to developing a greater ability to focus. And as Cal Newport suggests, anyone who can focus on a problem in depth for a long period of time will be more valuable than those of us with the attention span of a flea. My prediction is that the cool kids will be reading tiny books.


What Does California’s Prop 64 Say About Home Marijuana Cultivation?

After our fist book, The Urban Homestead, came out we visited a big-box bookstore to see what category it ended up in. This was before bookstores created separate shelves for urban homesteading. Unsurprisingly, we found it in the gardening section. What did surprise me was the other books in the garden category. The overwhelming majority were about growing marijuana. There were lavish coffee table books of bud porn, detailed encyclopedias edited by huge teams of experts and countless tomes covering the technical details indoor lights, fertilizers and growing mediums.

Marijuana is the elephant in the gardening bedroom. I strongly suspect that the majority of money spent on fertilizers and gardening related products are for growing pot not petunias. This November, Californians will vote on Proposition 64 which will legalize marijuana for adults over 21. I thought I’d take a look at the text of the law to see what it says about home cultivation.

Currently, qualified patients can use and grow marijuana for medical purposes. In practice anyone can “qualify” by handing over some cash to a storefront doctor and claiming some vague symptoms. This is an exact repeat of what happened during prohibition when a shady doctor could write you a prescription for a shot of whiskey. Under the present law, according to NORML,

Qualified patients are exempt from the state permit program if cultivating less than 100 square feet for personal medical use.  Primary caregivers with five or fewer patients are allowed up to 500 square feet (AB 243, 11362.777(g) and SB 643, 19319). Exemption under this section does not prevent a local government from further restricting or banning the cultivation, provision, etc. of medical cannabis by individual patients or caregivers in accordance with its constitutional police powers under Section 7, Article XI of the CA Constitution (11362.777(g))

In other words, right now there’s a confusing patchwork of regulation when it comes to personal cultivation.

Here’s the text of Proposition 64 relating to home cultivation:

11362.2. (a) Personal cultivation of marijuana under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) a/Section 11362.1 is subject to the following restrictions:
(1) A person shall plant, cultivate, harvest, dry, or process plants in accordance with local ordinances, if any, adopted in accordance with subdivision (b) of this section.
(2) The living plants and any marijuana produced by the plants in excess of 28.5 grams are kept within the person’s private residence, or upon the grounds of that private residence (e.g., in an outdoor garden area), are in a locked space, and are not visible by normal unaided vision from a public place.
(3) Not more than six living plants may be planted, cultivated, harvested, dried, or processed within a single private residence, or upon the grounds of that private residence, at one time. (b)(l) A city, county, or city and county may enact and enforce reasonable regulations to reasonably regulate the actions and conduct in paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1. (2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), no city, county, or city and county may completely prohibit persons engaging in the actions and conduct under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1 inside a private residence, or inside an accessory structure to a private residence located upon the grounds of a private residence that is fully enclosed and secure. (3) Notwithstanding paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 113 62.1, a city, county, or city and county may completely prohibit persons from engaging in actions and conduct under paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 11362.1 outdoors upon the grounds of a private residence.
(4) Paragraph (3) of this subdivision shall become inoperable upon a determination by the California Attorney General that nonmedical use of marijuana is lawful in the State of California under federal law, and an act taken by a city, county, or city and county under paragraph (3) shall be deemed repealed upon the date of such determination by the California Attorney General.
(5) For purposes of this section, ”private residence” means a house, an apartment unit, a mobile home, or other similar dwelling.

In short, the proposition will prevent municipalities from forbidding indoor growing while allowing the regulation of outdoor growing. I’m not going to address what the proposition says about larger growing operations since this involves a complex maze of yet to evolve state and local laws that are hugely controversial.


In my perfect world marijuana is just another plant, no more or less exciting that a grape vine. As a consequence of marijuana prohibition, illegal outdoor growing operations have been the cause of a lot of environmental damage and violence. Indoor growing is energy intensive and inefficient. It’s my hope that Proposition 64 will improve the current situation by legalizing personal growing (though I wish that municipalities did not have so much control over outdoor growing). Enacting laws against plants seems arrogant, and reminds me of King Canute’s demonstration of the futility of willing the tide not to come in. I have no interest in growing pot, but I think it should be legal to do so.

That said, I realize this proposition is hugely controversial and depends a lot on what will happen when the legislature and local municipalities start building up a regulatory structure surrounding the use, taxation and production of marijuana. I’m interested in hearing your opinions. To those of you who already live where pot is legal–Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington: what has legalization meant in terms of home growing operations? If you’re in California, will you be voting for or against Prop 64? If you’re not in California do you think is should be legal to grow pot? Why or why not?


Nassim Nicholas Taleb on GMOs and the Precautionary Principle


With the prospect of a Monsanto/Bayer mashup GMOs are back in the news.

In an interview from 2015, former trader and risk management expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents what I think are some of the best arguments against GMOs. In this podcast Taleb tackles:

  • The statistical errors found in scientific papers
  • The need to apply the precautionary principle
  • The unacknowledged risks of catastrophe
  • The technological salvation fallacy

In short, it’s not about the health risks of eating a GMO corn chip. It’s more about the way we discount and misunderstand risk. Consider Taleb’s argument the biological equivalent of what happens in The Big Short (a film in Netflix that’s well worth viewing).

You can listen to Taleb’s interview and download it here.